The Vile Victorians
One of the Horrible Histories by Terry Deary
The Birmingham Stage Company
Derngate Theatre, Northampton, and touring
Review by John Johnson
There is no doubt that Terry Deary has created a successful series with his Horrible Histories series - both adults and kids alike are able to learn and find joy from this collection of accessible stories. The Birmingham Stage Company, who recently delighted with their version of Roald Dahl's Danny The Champion of the World are currently touring their version of The Terrible Tudors and The Vile Victorians, bringing The Histories to life.
The shows run side by side at the Northampton Derngate Theatre, and are popular with audience members of all ages. I witnessed The Vile Victorians being brought to life. There were strong elements that made the performance a crowd-pleasing spectacle. Yet, for me the live show never really lived up to its literary counterpart.
Perhaps the huge venue did not lend itself to the intimate quality of the small company - the personal mics made for a 'tinny' sound that masked sections of text. The set design too, seemed tired - the obligatory multi-functioning cart served its purpose yet seemed to lack imagination in how it was employed for the staging.
The performers bounce around with commitment and energy, playing a whole manner of 'goodies' and 'baddies.' Yet they are not helped by the songs - which never seemed to work - becoming a distraction rather than assisting in the storytelling. The direction of Neal Foster also felt uncharacteristically unimaginative - it felt as though there were many missed opportunities in this interpretation.
The Set-Designer Jacqueline Trousdale must be applauded for her vast Screen Illustrations, which provided cartoon like backdrops for each story. This did make for quick changes - allowing the stories to move along, just as it seemed they might lose the concentration of the young audience members.
In connection with the set design and a definite winner in this performance were the 3D Bogglevision special effects. Laden with special 3D glasses, the audience are treated to a visual feast of interaction - rats are thrown, it seems, directly at you - it looked like it was raining and we dodged bullets as they flew at us from the set of the Crimean War.
This worked extremely well, and one wonders why it wasn't used more. There were gasps of excitement and murmurs of anticipation. The excitement that lacked in many parts of this performance suddenly came to life as we were treated to the Vile Victorians in three dimensions.
So all in all, a disappointment. There are many who will enjoy the 'Live on Stage' version which is as accessible, as the original books were, for all ages. However, the theatrical storytelling never seemed to fulfill the potential that, on paper, seems a great idea.
Peter Lathan reviewed this production at the Sunderland Empire